Eighteen holes sit between Rory McIlroy and another mark in history.
Since the second world war, only two players have claimed a dozen PGA Tour titles before the age of 27. The identity of those individuals, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, supplies all necessary evidence of the scale of such achievement. Aged 26 and 10 months, McIlroy has golfing royalty in his sights once again.
“You’re being mentioned with two of the best players to ever play the game,” McIlroy acknowledged. “It’s flattering and it’s special. It’s up to me to go out and do it; I haven’t done it quite yet. There’s still a long way to go.
“There’s 18 holes to negotiate out there tomorrow, and hopefully I will join that illustrious company tomorrow night. But I need to concentrate and play a good round of golf.”
Elimination of the aberrations which had irked McIlroy so much during the early part of this WGC-Cadillac Championship here have played the key in the establishment of a three-shot lead, on a total of 12 under par.
The Northern Irishman has not made a bogey in 34 holes, a run endorsed on the 18th green before darkness fell on Saturday as he holed out from six and a half feet for par. Just four players inside the top 22 here scored third rounds in the 60s; McIlroy, with a 68, represented one of them. Catch him if you can.
“I played really solidly,” McIlroy added. “I didn’t make any mistakes, which is what I have felt like I’ve been needing [to do]. I made par putts, I gave myself a lot of looks for birdie and felt really good about things. I just need more of the same tomorrow.
“I knew the good stuff was in there. It was just about trying to eradicate the bad stuff, the loose shots, the mental errors, the mistakes. This is more like I feel how I should play.”
McIlroy is not prone to complacency but an endorsement of that attitude will be offered by a glance at the players in his pursuit. Dustin Johnson, the defending champion, and Adam Scott, who won the Honda Classic a week ago, are tied second at nine under par. Johnson, it must be noted, won from a position of five adrift on the Sunday morning at Doral a year ago.
And yet the leading chasers have displayed a fallibility not visible in McIlroy since day one. Scott, his third-round playing partner, slipped to a 73. “Nothing really went my way,” the Australian said. “Rory played the round everyone was looking for out there. I’m in with a chance tomorrow but I need a good start.
“I watched Rory play some great golf. I think he’s going to be very satisfied with that round. It looked like he was under total control. Of course, there are a couple shots here or there that he could nitpick but it was really all under control.” Johnson let a tiny par-putt slip by on the last for his 71. “Anything’s possible,” he warned.
Scott and Johnson will be aware that, far more often than not, McIlroy converts from positions such as these. This represents the sixth time McIlroy has led by at least three heading into the final afternoon of a PGA Tour event. The only time he failed to win, and woundingly so, was at the 2011 Masters.
“What I learned back then was that you can’t protect a lead. You can’t defend,” McIlroy explained. “You have to just keep going and set yourself a target. Basically, I can’t play defensively. Defensive isn’t my style. So I need to go out there and be aggressive and be assertive.”
Fireworks should be visible on, as well as off the course on Sunday, then, with Doral’s owner and the US presidential candidate Donald Trump due on site.
Bubba Watson and Danny Willett lie fourth at minus seven, where they have Phil Mickelson for company.
Jordan Spieth’s 73 meant he outscored his close friend and playing partner Justin Thomas by five. Thankfully for Thomas, a bet between the pair regarding a shaved head for the Saturday loser wasn’t serious. “That was just for fun,” Spieth confirmed.
The Masters and US Open champion had baffled rules officials by asking whether or not he could add saliva to the sole of his putter to prevent it from sliding on fast greens. The answer, after considerable deliberation, was no.
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